nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 13, 2008
Searing, intimate, and quiet, Lillian Yuralia packs an unexpected emotional wallop. This play by Barbara Eda-Young is set in New York in 1930, where Lillian and her son, Yidl, are vacating their apartment, bound for Altoona (where Lillian has family) on an evening train. Lillian, who doesn't like to leave air empty and therefore talks incessantly, is in no hurry to leave. One more cup of tea, she tells her son, and then we'll go. After said cup of tea, she swallows down something mysterious from a bottle that causes her to instantly pass out. Yidl rushes to the apartment next door for assistance.
Next door is Levy, a man Lillian and Yidl have really never met, though they've been neighbors for years. It is Friday night, and he is observing his Sabbath ritual as he must have done thousands of times before, alone and in near silence. He blesses the candles and rips off a tiny piece of challah from under an ancient lace covering. He puts on a recording of a cantor singing and enjoys a few moments of peace.
So the interruption—first Yidl's pounding on the door, and then the arrival of the boy and his now-revived and alarmingly loquacious mother—is hardly welcome. But the time that these three spend together turns out to be invaluable, perhaps even sacred.
Eda-Young's play, we discover, is about the ways that the smallest of interactions can become infinitely significant when they're authentically from the heart. I spent the first 10 or 15 minutes of the scene in Mr. Levy's apartment waiting for some surprise to be revealed: he's Lillian's long-lost husband or father or whatever. But no, he's the stranger he appears to be; but one stranger is still capable of giving much to another, and the gifts the characters exchange in Lillian Yuralia are gifts to the audience as well.
The play is directed with meticulous care by Austin Pendleton (on an uncredited set that eloquently contrasts the permanence of Levy's home with the transient forlornness of Lillian's circumstance—for example, there is only one doorframe on the stage, and it's the one leading in and out of Levy's apartment). Period-appropriate, highly detailed costumes are by Catherine Siracusa and Sid Levitt; evocative lighting is provided by Alexander Bartenieff.
The performances are the key to the play's success, though. Eda-Young has written for herself the play's largest role, of a woman whose nerves make her hard to take in large doses; she performs it beautifully, with great warmth and humor. But Lillian is actually peripheral to this play that bears her name; it is the relationship between Levy and Yidl that is central here, and John Magaro as Lillian's troubled teenage son and especially Ben Hammer as the old man who unexpectedly reaches out to him deliver brilliant characterizations. Hammer—an enormously accomplished actor whose Broadway debut was with the Lunts (!) in 1956—inhabits Levy so precisely that we're aware of what he's thinking throughout his many long silences. Seeing him at work in the intimate La MaMa First Floor space is perhaps the most special reward among the many provided by this spare, deft, touching drama.